I started the process of switching my 11 year old son over from his pediatrician to the family doctor. Yesterday we attended his first appointment with the Nurse Practitioner and as she chatted with him she asks a few casual questions to loosen him up. “What grade are you in? Where do you go to school?” and then, conspiratorially, “Is there a special person in your life?” He giggled and she said “A girlfriend? Boyfriend?” Now I have to say that I tensed up a little when she began to ask if he had a girlfriend, as I have been ever-vigilante about my language when it comes to future speak. As a self-identified pansexual (I don’t love the term, but it’s the closest I’ve got) I grew up in a very non-traditional household with one single (feminist) parent where the social circle included people of varying orientations and self-identification. Despite that, I never spoke to my mother about my own “orientation”. Even now. Not really because I thought she wouldn’t approve, and not even because I feared any rejection. Mostly, because it never occurred to me that I might live a life in accord with my wants. The language had always been clear. Did I have a boyfriend? Did I want to have children with my husband? Any special boys in my class? I had always chosen “I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to have children” as my response. I didn’t even think at that moment “but I also like girls”, but I did wonder if it meant that as I grew older, I would start to like only boys. In a way, that’s what happened. As someone who is equally physically attracted to both genders, as I passed through puberty I stepped neatly to the hetero side and there I began exploring sex and relationships. It would be years before I stepped back into my place of balance.
I have tried to always praise my children in gender neutral terms and place no focus on future-spousal gender. Rather than make reference to the future unit as them plus a wife, I instead offer “if you fall in love with a special person”. I know it sounds silly and PC, but if you understand how easily and truly we are programmed by language then you will know the significance. When we ask gender specific questions we automatically plant an image of an opposite gender person. That becomes the focus. When we make reference only to love, we leave them free to fill in the blanks with whatever evolves from their own attractions. Gay and gender fluid adults were once gay and gender fluid children and if we stop and put ourselves in their varying positions, we must see how confusing that is to their emerging understanding. I have spoken with dozen of gay male friends who recount how uncomfortable it was growing up to have relatives tease them about liking girls. How they left family dinners and sat for hours in their rooms wondering what the hell was wrong with them. Praying to go to sleep and wake up “normal’. To desire a wife. We are sending a subtle message that we have expectations to be met, and nothing sets us up for disappointment quite like expectations. Now imagine that child feels mismatched in their own body. That a young boy trapped in a young girl’s body, who prays only for his release, is constantly confronted with the expectation of motherhood and wifedom. That same child may well grow up to marry and become a parent. Imagine if we could leave them to figure out what that looked like without lovingly dragging them down the path of least resistance. A child who grows up knowing that love is not contingent on expectations fulfilled, but rather is a gift to them, in all their glory, is less likely to be plagued with the issues of suicide, homelessness, addiction and incarceration that so often becomes the fate of marginalized young people. While society has slowly become more accepting of the spectrum of orientations that exist, this is still particularly difficult for trans youth who often face merciless teasing and even violence. Sometimes from within their own families.
It’s time for a subtle shift in attitude around gender and sexuality. It starts first with recognizing how heterosexuality has infiltrated our culture and our language as “the norm”. Most of us have no idea we are even doing it. It feels natural. If we can remove the connection between gender and achievement “Good girl!” and sexuality and success “You’ll make some man very happy one day” and instead replace those with broader expressions of love and acceptance. “When you grow up and fall in love”, “when you decide what people you are attracted to”.
There’s an underlying theory that it is somehow easier to be straight and status quo and therefore we wish that for our children. I would argue that it is infinitely more difficult to be gay, bisexual or trans/gender fluid and trying to live up to the hopes and dreams of others, rather than fulfilling your own. We must trust our children, that with that broad language they will fill in the blanks with love, regardless of what that love looks like. That they will follow their hearts, without worrying about ours. That they have the freedom to reject that which makes them uncomfortable. We take that right for ourselves, and expect our children to grow up to be critical thinkers, yet we severely limit the scope of their imaginations by giving them very rigid choices based on what we want for them.
My oldest son has already determined quite easily that he is heterosexual. He determined that because all options were available to him based on his actual attractions to people (as well as lack thereof).He now understands himself to be “straight. My youngest son has neither made any declaration nor shown any inclination. He knows that my only wish is that he find a supportive and loving life, whatever that may look like. He feels no need to make a choice or even pursue thinking about it at this time. I have every faith that he will choose the truth that fits him best. He has a blank slate of expectations, he can’t possibly disappoint me.